This spring Hulu delivered a new original series, The Handmaid’s Tale. This show had me hooked from episode one. I see it as a dystopian tale set in America’s near future, taken from the biblical past, where a revolution has put super conservative freaked out Christians in charge. In this dystopia, many men and women are infertile and a new regime puts into place a way to keep the population pushing forward. This story shares many themes, but one I took away was how it made the concept of oppression - which some do not see very well - so clear.
The main character, Offred (her obligation to a bear a child is to Fred), is a handmaid who was stolen because she has a daughter and therefore must be fertile. The story chronicles how she and other handmaids respond to their newly oppressive state. The oppression of the handmaids is clear when viewers learn the ceremony rituals, that women are government-issued to men, and that handmaids are a commodity to be traded internationally– just to name a few. The women in this story respond to their oppression in different ways. Here I will discuss three – rage, resistance, and revolution. (Offred’s inner thoughts show the contradiction between what oppressed peoples’ thoughts and actions.)
Fiery rage is documented in a number of ways in this series. One handmaid has a baby and has fallen into Lala Land, thinking her commander loves her and is going to run away with her and the baby. Upon realizing that she has been bamboozled, she is so enraged that she kidnaps the baby and threatens to jump off a bridge with her, plummeting to the death of both – one an oppressed woman willing to die to escape the life she endures, and the other an innocent new life that is valued higher than anything else in the society.
Offred shows rage after a doctor’s appointment when she realizes she is just a vessel for someone else’s happiness and that her happiness, and the happiness of other handmaids, is not a consideration. She is faulted for not getting pregnant and punished by being imprisoned in her room for days. In another episode, Fred’s wife, Serena, needs to make it clear that she has the power and control in the house and takes Offred on a field trip to see her daughter, whom she had no idea what happened to her, if she was even alive, and hasn’t seen her since she was kidnapped. This clearly sets pregnant Offred into a violent rage in which she screams obscenities at Serena, who hears every word and shows no emotion at what has just ensued.
But there is one scene that shows the epitome of rage. A pregnant handmaid was raped and the baby died. The punishment in this dystopia is death. The clip below shows how the oppressor uses the handmaids’ rage to kill this man, and they do not think twice about doing so. The pain, anger, and redemption shown on their faces is cinematography’s visualization of the rage oppressed peoples feel.
The hope in the story is the times of resistance where the viewer believes there is a way out for the handmaids. There are subtle times of resistance; when Offred suggests tuna for dinner when she knows the driver doesn’t like it, when handmaids take the long way home, or lie and admit fault to their keepers to get something they need. For example, when Offred wants to be released from being imprisoned in her room, she appeals to her commander’s wishes to play scrabble and have company. Using the knowledge that his past handmaid committed suicide is pushing him to make Offred’s life bearable. Her manipulation of this knowledge to get what she needs is a form of resistance.
More overt examples of resistance come when June (Offred’s name from her other life) and her best friend, Moira, attempt to escape when they discover what being a handmaid entails. They steal the clothes of an Aunt and head off to Canada. June gets captured during the escape attempt and the oppressor punishes her. They make an example out of her to control and instill fear in the rest of the handmaids.
However, an actual Aunt does escape to Canada and in an interview expresses to the world the oppression and horrendous conditions of the handmaids’ lives. Offred’s commander has to spin it to make her look unreliable and offer a mirage of happiness to the world and mask what is actually happening.
But the act of resistance shown as a unified group at the end of the season (shown in the clip below) is a turning point in the story. The punishment for attempting suicide is death by stoning (seems totally logical). The handmaids are given the job of stoning their fellow handmaid who jumped off the bridge and survived. Their act of resistance is successful because Offred is pregnant and knows Aunt Lydia won’t let anything happen to her – sorry Aunt Lydia, no stoning today.
Technically this dystopian handmaid hell was brought about by a revolution. So the handmaids are working on a counterrevolution to get their lives back. Maybe that is what season two will bring. I’m sure it is coming because in the final episode Offred says, “They never should have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” In the clip below, the handmaids leave the stoning of their fellow handmaid with their heads held high, leaving a strong message to their oppressor that they are not going to settle into the handmaid role handed to them without permission.
Henry David Thoreau said, “A truly good book [text]…teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint.…What I began by reading I must finish by acting.” The visual text of The Handmaid’s Tale is hinting at the fact that there are people in our society who live in oppression, and those who do not are the oppressors. To act on this hint means to acknowledge the struggles of oppressed black and brown people in the United States and the role that everyday white people play as oppressors. So when your whiteness is perplexed by riots after murders of black and brown bodies by police, think rage and get angry that your fellow black and brown Americans do not have the same rights and freedoms as you do. When your white world is temporarily disrupted by a #blacklivesmatter march and you might be late to wherever you’re headed, think resistance and march in solidarity. When you fear that your white life will never be the same if our fellow black and brown citizens are truly liberated, you are in the midst of the revolution, what side will you be on?